So...finally have these things going...hopefully I'm using them correctly
Homebrew 101: Allot of brewers have wood….
January 4, 2015
Like most crafts in which creativity and inspiration result in trends that combine the contemporary and traditional, beer has seen its fair share of old world brewing techniques paired with the tastes favored by modern pallets. I have a personal fondness for are the rich and aromatic oak aged stouts and porters that are in abundance this time of year, as well as lighter beers aged in wine barrels best suited for warmer seasons in Denver. It has been my observation that every home brewer I know has taken a moment to covet the barrels lining the walls of so many of our local breweries. This interest in the added complexity that comes with introducing wood to wort carries on to home brewing and with it come new challenges to getting your beer to turn out as planned.
What’s the big deal?
We are all familiar with the smoky earthy and sweet flavors that come from oak aged beers, whiskey and wine. There is more to this than simply hacking off a piece of the oak tree in your backyard and dropping it in your home brew (seriously don’t do that, what’d that tree ever do to you?) involving knowledge and skills that are as renowned as brewing or distilling. The craft of making barrels, known as Cooperage, includes in part charring the oak staves (wood bits) on the interior of the barrel. This helps to seal the wood and prevent large volumes of liquid from being absorbed, but it also will caramelize the sugars that naturally exist in the oak. The amount of char will vary depending on the barrels intended use and will result in an equally variable impact on both flavor and color of whatever will be aging therein.
The type of oak used for aging is equally important to the impact aging will have on taste. The sweet and vanilla like characteristics of good bourbon for example are related to the use of primarily American Oak barrels that are heavily charred, whereas barrels used for white wines are often made of French Oak and have a lighter toast lending to the more “buttery” tastes of a good Chardonnay among others. The combination of wood and char is integral to the success of oak aging any beverage, particularly for those batches that will be in the barrel for the first time. One advantage of oak aging beer is that it is most often done with barrels that had a previous life in whiskey or wine (or if you are really fancy like the folks at Copper Kettle Brewing, tequila barrels), meaning that they have already been vetted to have the characteristics that are desired.
Barrel Aging Beer
It may seem that this would be as simply as racking your home brew into a barrel and calling it good for a month or two but taking that approach will most likely end badly for you. There are several things to take into account when barrel aging which will require allot more attention and consistency than letting your brew hangout in a carboy.
The first thing to consider is contamination. Since the majority of barrels that are on the market were previously used, this means that they also may have had yeast or some other alcohol making bug (we will talk about them in the Wild Ale post I’ll be doing later). Normal sanitizers for home brewing have the potential to damage the barrel, so your best bet for cleaning your barrel is to pressure wash with hot water and wipe down with a clean cotton cloth. It’s extremely important that you leave the head off the barrel and get it as dry as you can as quickly as you can to avoid creating the kind of moist environment that germs find cozy.
It’s also important to remember that even though your barrel has been charred and likely used, it is going to absorb some of the beer that you are aging. Be prepared for this and if you are wanting to have the same volume of beer to consume that you put into the barrel, you will need to have a secondary vessel with extra wort/beer ready to top off the barrel as needed. Given that the average barrel size is 55 gallons, if you are a home brewer this most likely won’t be an issue (unless you are brewing enough for your entire neighborhood to have a few pints, in which case you need to invite me over….). If you are like me and don’t have the money and space (mostly money) for full sized barrel aging shenanigans, there are still ways that you can get that oaky goodness into your brew.
Wood Aging Beer
There are all sorts of nifty tricks to get the flavors and aromas from a barrel in a traditional home brew setup. Some require a little more effort than others, but all will certain add something to whatever your goals for your beer may be. As mentioned before we are in the season of oak aged stouts and porters, which most often employ the use of bourbon barrels, let’s start with a few home brew tips and tricks for making one of these yourself.
One of the best ways to get a true “bourbon-y” quality in your beer is to buy individual staves or pieces of staves from a barrel that has been broken down. This is particularly good for standard 5 gallon batches that are going to have secondary fermentation in a bucket since you can put as many or as few stave pieces in the vessel as you like. Remember to clean your staves and allow them to dry after each batch to extend the number of batches that you can get out of them. Finding staves can be a bit tricky, but if you ask around at local distilleries (we have a few popping up here in the Denver area) or even local breweries who may have damaged barrels they are usually willing to work with you. Every now and again brewing supply stores get their hands on some staves and will sell them on a first come first serve basis as well.
If you are using a carboy for secondary or just don’t want to hunt down staves, another good option is lining the bottom of your secondary vessel with oak chips. These chips can usually be found with charcoal and other barbequing supplies and are relatively inexpensive. Keep in mind that this just takes care of the wood aspect and not the char, which you will have to do yourself. I’ve found that a brulee torch works well for this, and there are a surprising number of videos on how to char for a certain flavor profile on the Youtubes (you really can find anything on the interwebs these days). Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike staves chips cannot be reused, so if you are going to go this route be prepared to buy in bulk.
As with barrels, staves and chips will also absorb some of the liquid in your fermenter although not to the same degree. Remember that you also have less interaction taking place between the wood and the beer, and will require a longer aging period as a result. There are a few other details that go with wood aging, and just like many other aspects of brewing it will require some experimentation and tweaking on your part as you go.
That should be a good starting point for everyone wanting to get a little wood in their beer. Whether you are wanting to make a stout that will put some hair on your chest or a saison with a buttery finish you can do so at home with relative ease. It’s time for a pint of something heavy so I’ll wish you all good luck with your wood…….and I look forward to seeing what you guys create! Cheers everyone!